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AT&T Uses Language as a Competitive Advantage
Posted by Nataly Kelly on June 18, 2012  in the following blogs: Business Globalization, Interpreting, Supplier Business Issues
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This morning, AT&T announced On-Demand Interpreter (ODI), a brand-new feature enabling its U.S. federal government employees and American business customers to get quick access to interpreters for 170 languages. The service is available through its partner, Language Line Services (LLS). AT&T will bill customers US$9.99 per month plus $2.99 for each minute of interpreting it provides. Why is this announcement important?

  • Quick and easy access to interpreters. With traditional telephone interpreting services, customers are required to set up an account in order to gain access. To use ODI, AT&T customers push *4 on their mobile phones and are instantly connected to an interpreter. 
  • Interpreting placed directly in the hands of customers. Why the number 4? That is the key on American handsets that contains the “I,” the first letter of “interpreter.” We have to wonder how many people will accidentally push the number 8 or “T” key for “translator” instead.
  • A price that could affect the overall industry. AT&T’s vice president of Mobility Solutions, Chris Hill, told the Washington Post that AT&T expects “strong, immediate uptake” of the new offering by federal agencies. As we’ve noted before, the U.S. federal government is one of the largest buyers of language services in the world. If Hill’s assertion is correct, the price point of US$2.99 per minute could drive up LLS’s average price per minute, which according to annual filings on its financial performance, had been decreasing in recent years. Because LLS is the largest telephone interpreting provider, strong uptake of this program would affect the fortunes of the entire interpreting market.
  • A pathway to millions of customers. The AT&T partnership is a milestone, making LLS the first company to bring interpreter services to a mobile platform with two taps on the keypad.  As LLS CEO Louis Provenzano noted, “We see this as a very important new area of growth for our company as it gets rolled out to various industries, businesses, and ultimately to consumers.”  When the *4 feature becomes available to AT&T’s estimated 103 million customers, it could do for interpreting what Google Translate has done in making translation visible to the everyday consumer.

How do we interpret this announcement? The partnership with AT&T is obviously beneficial to LLS, but the bigger story is how the new service will help AT&T. The company cited growth in its strategic business services division in its latest quarterly call with investors (see slide 14 of the presentation). AT&T is adding language services to that portfolio of services, hoping that both government agencies and corporations see the value of on-demand interpreting services. *4 will open a bigger gap in business services between it and rivals such as Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.


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